Sharon Memis (Director, British Council USA)

19.05.2011 - Interview conducted by Katie Dickmeyer

Q1: What are the British Council’s main interests and priorities in the US?

In the United States, our main purpose is to invest in the future of the transatlantic relationship and we do that by connecting the next generation of leaders, individuals, organizations, in order to work on shared agendas around the world. We also do a huge amount in developing strategic partnerships, which encourage exchange of students and faculty between the UK and US and also with third countries. Also the arts are absolutely central to our work, so we work particularly in performing arts and the theatre. We try to bring new innovative work from the UK that challenges perceptions about the United Kingdom and also deals with difficult topics, because we believe very strongly that the arts are the most effective ways of creating a safe and mutual space for dialogue. So we’ve done just that with a series of plays about the history of foreign engagement in Afghanistan, which just got people talking about Afghanistan; we had panel discussions, events, and then a really interesting publication, and we brought quite new and different audiences into the theatre. So it was a benefit to everybody: it benefited the UK company that got known here, which is a very small group, and it benefited the US Military because they learnt something about the history of the country in which they are working. So it was an extremely interesting piece of work to do. There is a lot of theatre that happens here without us, anyway. For example, two years ago, the Royal Ballet came to Washington and we had no involvement—but my colleagues helped the Royal Ballet get to Cuba because, without the British Council, it couldn’t have happened. So where we intervene here is where things wouldn’t happen without us and we are trying to constantly challenge perceptions about the UK, which are sometimes a little traditional and outdated. We’re also always trying to connect the next generation of leaders, organizations and individuals.

Q2: The British Council report published earlier this year says that opportunities to capitalize on transatlantic cooperation have been missed. What opportunities has the British Council identified and what efforts are being made to ensure that the maximum is being made of such opportunities?

You’re probably talking about the research we did around the transatlantic relationship. One of the things we developed as a result of that research, which looked at what people thought about transatlantic cooperation, was a program called Transatlantic Network 2020. This is very much a program for young leaders, in the 25-35 age groups, and again what we try to do is to bring together a really diverse group from the US, Mexico, Canada, the UK and other European countries so they can work on shared agendas. These people are very savvy and they have their own networks. What we try to do with them is to facilitate opportunities for them to work in other parts of the world. We have another similar program called Global Change Makers where we get young people from the US who have gone to a program that we organize and then are selected to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland; we had an amazing young eighteen-year-old American who went to Davos, did a blog on the Washington Post, managed to get an internship in San Francisco, and was the youngest American ever to have attended Davos. He was on a platform with the leaders of the world. So we give these amazing opportunities for young people here, emerging leaders, to really connect with their peers in other countries and we are trying to expand that program to India, China and the Middle East—especially in the wake of the Arab Spring. It’s very much around global networks because that’s how people function, that’s how people think, and the UK and the US are very much keen on working together in the world.

Q3: The British Council has a large online presence. How has the use of social media opened up new opportunities for forging intercultural relations and how is this technology being used to advance the goals of the British Council?

I think the example I’d use is actually the English language one. Perhaps I should preface that by saying, for an organization as big as the British Council, it’s actually quite difficult for us to think we can create our own platform; the only way we can work is to use what’s out there and use what other people are using. The way in which we are using new technology and online communication with our English language program is working to reach different audiences. One example is the material we use for teaching young learners—around the world we teach thousands of young learners between the ages of seven and eighteen and we have fabulous teaching material for children online. So in certain countries we have the elite, who pay for the lessons in the schools, then we develop the materials which we are then able to make available as an open source and give out to other governments, working around the world to then deliver a lot of the material online. We have a program called Connecting Classrooms and it’s with the UK and other countries—for example, in Pakistan, in certain areas it’s just too difficult for the actual physical exchanges to happen, so we do it online and that means we are connecting kids in Kashmir with kids in Bradford, in the north of England. The way we do it is to get a cluster of schools: we get a boys’ school, a girls' school, a state school and we try to get a private school too, where the technology tends to be better and then we get a madrasah as well. So we get this cluster and we use the technology that’s in the private school to connect to the UK, where the technology is great; we are trying to use the right technology. In the same way, we teach English through Second Life, we teach it through mobile phones so that everybody, wherever they are, they have a way that suits them to engage. Not everybody engages in the same way: in Afghanistan we do English language teaching through the radio. With the Transatlantic Network 2020, we have close collaboration sites so that people plan and develop projects and connect online and then go out, so we use it in a way that works for us and I think that’s really the key—we keep our purpose and our outcomes and our objectives in mind and we work out how to do it, while that means also bringing in people who understand it and who are much younger than I am.

Thank you for your time.